Nun veil row sparks religious rights debate
Thiruvanthapuram: Denying a Catholic nun entry to an examination hall because she was wearing her habit calls for a discussion on the right to practice religion in a secular nation, says the head of the Catholic Church in India.
The Church does not wish to “rake up a controversy over this unfortunate incident,” says Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
However, it raises the question of whether authorities are “targeting religious symbols or exam malpractices”, he said.
The cardinal was responding after Sister Seba, 29, from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, was not allowed to take the Indian Pre-medical Entrance Test on July 23 because she was wearing a veil and cross that are part of her habit.
The national test, a qualifying examination for medical studies, was being staged again because of mass cheating the first time. The Indian Supreme Court had ordered a re-test and insisted on a strict dress code after students used sophisticated electronic devices to cheat.
Two Muslim girls wanting to wear a hijab unsuccessfully challenged the Supreme Court decision.
Authorities at the examination center in the Kerala state capital of Thiruvananthapuram told the nun that she would not be allowed in with her veil and cross because of the court ruling. They also told her she could not take the test in a separate room, Sister Seba told ucanews.com.
“I refused to remove my veil and cross as it’s part of my dress code as a nun. I consulted with my superiors and they also supported my decision. So I lost an opportunity to take the test,” she said.
The veil “cannot be removed just like a hat. It has a lot of meaning, which others may not understand,” she added.
Cardinal Cleemis said such an issue was “not only to be discussed by priests and religious and the Catholic Church” but should become a matter of discussion for wider civil society to discuss the rights of people to practice their faith in a multi-religious nation, he said in a statement.
That discussion was taken up on social media. Some criticized the nun for stirring controversy.
If thousands of Muslims, Sikhs and those from other religious were not able to follow the dress code as prescribed by the examination board, why should a nun want “special treatment?” asked Jimmy Thomas, a Christian, on Facebook. However, Davis Mathew, also on Facebook, pointed out that some silent protests were “more meaningful. We support Sister Seba,” he said.
Some 600,000 students took the three hour-long-exam in centers across the nation.
Satya Das, principal of Jawahar Central Sschool, where the nun was to take the exam, said they would have allowed her to take the exam if she had handed her veil and cross to another nun who was with her. The nun refused to cooperate, Das said.
“I could not allow her in as it was against the guidelines given to us,” said Das, who is also a Christian.